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The Fight for Marriage: Lessons From Inside the Opposition

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Insight from a documentarian embedded in both camps during Maine's 2009 battle.

There was a moment back in the fall of 2009 in Augusta, Maine when I felt in my gut that gays and lesbians in that state would not win the right to marry.

As a filmmaker, I had been given unprecedented access to cover both sides of the anti-marriage equality referendum campaign taking place in Maine at that time.

It was October, and with three more weeks to go until voters went to the polls, I found myself at a phone bank at the state's Republican headquarters with a cadre of volunteers urging their fellow Mainers to vote in favor of a "traditional" one man-one woman marriage.

I was in a room that night with a man named Walter as he made call after call. He had placed his phone on speaker so that I was able to hear the other side of the conversation.

Nothing seemed too terribly remarkable until about the sixth call.

The woman on the other side started off by saying that she believed that her gay and lesbian neighbors deserved their equal rights.

"Oh," Walter responded, "but they have equal rights."

The woman wasn't entirely convinced.

"They have all of their protections," Walter continued.

"They can stay together as a couple. They have everything. Why should we redefine the concept of marriage when they have everything they want?"

"They do?" she responded.

"Yes they do," countered Walter. "Nobody wants to hurt our gay and lesbian friends and we can still keep marriage between a man and a woman."

The woman had no response. And merely uttered: "I guess you're right."

And at that moment, the first of several important moments, my heart sank.

Basically, with this argument, voters were being given permission to cast their ballot against us -- but without feeling any guilt.

And I knew instinctively that was the argument that could very well be the silver bullet in defeating marriage for gays and lesbians in Maine.

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This November, as four states (including Maine again) hold marriage referendums on the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, I think back to this moment and a handful of others in Maine where I had a vantage point in observing both sides that few, if any, had.

I think back on these moments -- moments of observation that I think could help inform those campaigns fighting for the rights of gays and lesbians to marry in 2012.

That moment. for example, in Augusta is valuable for what it revealed about the tactics of the opposition, and also for how Equality Maine (the pro-gay marriage side) responded.

About a week later, Stand For Marriage (the side opposing gay marriage) put out an ad reflective of those very themes that Walter had used on the phone; basically that you can vote against marriage equality and not feel bad about it.

And yet there was no counter. No hit-back that clearly stated: No marriage, no equality. What we have is not the same. And here are the devastating consequences for individuals, couples and families who cannot marry.

(In fact throughout the campaign, there was barely any mention of the word "gay" in any of ads that Equality Maine put out.)

And while hindsight is always 20-20, what I observed from that defining moment in Maine is: counter, counter hard and call things clearly for what they are. Without that, the woman on the telephone had no way of knowing that what Walter was telling her was not true to the thousands of same-sex couples in Maine who would be denied the chance to marry.

The second moment that I recall occurred when I listened.

I really listened to what those who opposed marriage for gays and lesbians were saying and how they were feeling.

Never disclosing that I was gay, as a filmmaker I was able to get pretty up close and personal and the kinds of things I heard about folks like me were enough to make a sailor blush. (Or at the very least make me lose a few shades of color.)

Those were not defining moments though.

The defining moments of insight and understanding came in moments of silence from a woman named Linda Seavy, who hailed from the rural town of Plymouth and was a volunteer for the Stand For Marriage campaign there.

I had spent the better part of a day with Linda as she drove miles and miles on rural back roads going from house to house from one small town to the next knocking on doors and putting up lawn signs.

It was the end of the day and Linda (a grandmother who, while never disclosing her age, had to have been somewhere in her '60s) was as energized as she was when she left the house in the early morning.

We were sitting in her living room decorated in wall-to-wall photos of family life throughout the years: kids growing up, barbeques, weddings and grandchildren's hockey games.

We were talking about the referendum. About gays. And marriage. And basically the state of the world.

"If you don't stand up for what you believe in then why bother?" Linda proclaimed.

As Linda kept speaking, I would catch her every now and then stopping in mid-sentence -- her eyes darting around frantically -- unsure of where to go.

"If this issue, if this issue," said Linda "does not go the way, the way that I want to it to....."

A pause.

"I just.....I...I...I...."

A longer pause.

"Because people, people, people just don't...they don't..."

Linda was now silent. For what seemed to be several minutes. Just staring out the window.

"stop there," she finally concluded.

What was behind Linda's stops and starts?

What marked her pauses I started to surmise was a feeling of being so overwhelmed by a world that in her view had gone mad -- that left her at times unable to speak.

"It used to be a time," Linda lamented "when gay meant happy and not the lifestyle that's accepted today."

The silence was utter bewilderment. It was Linda not fully comprehending what she considered the absolute insanity of where the world was going.

Gays being allowed to marry?! Unthinkable!

Linda's world was being thrown into a state of turmoil. What was "wrong" was now "right." What was up was now down.

Linda was fueled with outrage and a sense of injustice that things were terribly wrong and she was powerless to do anything about it.

The world was passing her by. Laws were being passed and her leaders didn't seem to care about listening to her voice. Linda now felt like the outsider looking in.

And that was my moment -- that moment that I understood. Understood the rage and the anger and the fear. That fear of change.

This was a woman who felt like she was clinging on for dear life, and that she had no choice but to plant her feet firmly on the ground and draw a line in the sand.

And it was in that moment that I realized that Linda, parishioners in Linda's Evangelical church and thousands and thousands of others who feel the same way cannot be easily dismissed.

And we do tend to do that. People like Linda are easy for us to mock. We laugh off their comments as being out of touch and arcane and stupid. And in short, they have become figures to ignore, or worse, ridicule.

Our side lost in Maine in the small towns like Plymouth, and among people like Linda.

I want this lesson to be understood in every single campaign office in Minnesota, Washington, Maryland and Maine: ridicule and dismiss people like Linda at your own peril.

It is understanding where specifically people like Linda are coming from and how vehement they are. And not generalizing and stereotyping them. It's basically taking people like Linda seriously that should infuse our strength to fight with even more vigor and zeal.

Which leads to my third defining moment. Which is the moment I thought our side would win.

In the days before the election, the polls showed us taking a lead. The excitement within campaign headquarters was electric.

Operationally, Protect Maine Equality were organized and strategic running a field campaign that had figured out with military precision (down to the number of knocks on doors needed per day) how to successfully hit their targets.

And the moment that I thought we could possible win was when during a "Get Out The Vote" strategy meeting a week out -- the grassroots director proudly proclaimed: "This election is ours to lose."

And as I looked at the gigantic white boards and flip charts and maps of Maine and heard the leaders go over day by day and hour by hour how the next week would play out. I too thought "it's ours to lose."

And we lost.

And looking back at that moment of sheer confidence that prevailed in that campaign room that day, all I can say is: the time to be confident is after we've won.

And then lastly, there was that moment of sadness. That moment, the morning after when I stood alone in the ballroom of the Portland Holiday Inn surveying an empty room. The night before, this very room was full to capacity. The music blared. And old people and young danced in anticipation of Maine being the first state in which marriage for gays and lesbians would win at the ballot box. The joy was palpable.

That scene slowly and horrifically morphed at midnight to tears and despair, when it became clear that our fairy tale of marriage was not going to come true.

I stood and I looked at this room in which, save for a few balloons bobbing about on the floor, one never could imagine how the evening before had played out.

The moments of sadness. The moments of imagining what could have been and what we ended losing slowly began to be replaced with anger.

The sense of defeat and deflation was soon replaced with rage -- that same rage that I heard from Linda.

That same outrage of, "I'm mad as hell as I'm not going to take it anymore."

And it's that anger that has settled into me. It's from that loss in Maine that will keep me fighting -- that should keep every single individual (especially those in this year's four states) who believe in the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to fight with every fiber of our being to win our freedom in order that we can say those two seemingly simple but indelible words: "I do."

Joe Fox is a filmmaker who co-directed (with James Nubile) the documentary "Question One" on Maine's recent marriage referendum. The film will be released in New York and San Francisco in October with national dates to follow.